Historical Research   (2016Nov10)


Thursday, November 10, 2016                                         12:15 PM

As a grandfather, I am obliged to resist despair. When I think of the election debacle, where the popular vote did not win the presidency, I have to wonder just how much control the average American has over his or her life. The Electoral College gives as much leverage to the uneducated malcontents of middle America as the corrupt gerrymandering of congressional districts gives the GOP on a local level. Our sagging educational system produces more ill-educated fools than anything else. And their ignorance makes them putty in the hands of a snake-oil salesman like the president-elect.

So the rich and powerful do as they will and the rest of us watch helplessly as democracy becomes a joke they play on us. Despair hovers irresistibly at my shoulder. But I must fight it. My granddaughter needs a world to live in, preferably with breathable air and on dry land. And it wouldn’t hurt if she had some control over her own future. That’s not the way it’s looking right now. But I mustn’t give up—I must try to keep my chin up and my eyes open—ugly as things may seem right now.

From now on I’ll have to do research. If Hillary had won, I would have gladly continued commenting on the commentary, throwing in my two cents along with everyone else. But these last few days I’ve come to realize that there is more truth and information in a sit-com episode than in all of TV ‘journalism’. For now, I’ll be confining myself to the New York Times—at least they deliver their bad news quietly. Which all means – I must do research from now on if I’m going to write anything worth the reading.

I can’t just lie in bed and gather information to comment upon—because I realize video-journalism has become a commodity. That means I’ll have to sit here at the computer doing searches and such—probably for much longer than I ever spent writing. That’s bound to cut into my output—but if my former output was based on shit input, there’s little wonder that I produced so much of it so easily.

Maybe that’s the secret of the two-party system. When the Reds take power, we all get scared to death—our minds working furiously on the problem of surviving in a world led by an entitled scumbag. Then, when they’ve brought us to the brink of total ruin, the Blues come in and fix it all, giving the people a break. So what it amounts to is that the United States of America, through the miracle of voting, is very hard on itself—but it’s for its own good. Does that make sense?

Or, said another way—we get used to believing what we’re told. That’s not a good thing. It’s better to keep in mind that a little checking helps keep everybody honest. Not that anyone is completely honest. That’s why history is such an art form. The historian takes the surviving documents, the fragments of artifacts (and the bones) and creates an image of what the past was like—tries to discern the influences borne of the past that manifest themselves in our every day.

People used to assume that history was a kind of ‘scripture’. Learned men had researched and studied and written it out—and we could believe it like testimony. And history took a big hit when it became popular to point out that history was subjective—and warn’t nuthin anyone could do about it (as Arlo Guthrie would say). The other way in which history compares to scripture is in its malleability to a cause. History can be shown to prove whatever theory you’d like. History, at its best, is a description of human nature over time—but it will never be an equation.

All of that aside, the mechanics of history remain the same—source documents are best, credible eyewitness accounts are second best, and everything else is up for discussion. For example: the Puritans spanned a full century and played a role in the colonization of the New World. But the surviving source documents of the New England Puritans could probably fit into a single room. Anyone who wishes to transform that paltry pile of paper into the reality of a century-long movement had better bring along a vivid imagination—and judging by the amount of writing done about the Puritans, hundreds have been happy in just such work—but few agree on every point.

In some cases, the findings are a matter of rigorous extrapolation—like Sherlock Holmes, the historian can say, ‘Well, if they did this, and they did that—they must at some point have done this other thing.’ And that’s all well and good. But the temptation to dramatize is as old as civilization itself. We project our own motivations into people of whom we have no true knowledge.

Not too long ago, there was a brief fad for ‘colorizing’ classic movies—and much research went into finding out what the actual colors of a dress or a street sign would have been. But there were inevitable cases in which an educated guess was left to the project designer.

You can judge Colorization by the briefness of its popularity. I believe that as CGI developed, people were too busy coloring in new stuff to re-work the old—and that’s probably for the better. But the urge was there. Given the opportunity to gild the lily, we are often likely to regret saying ‘why not?’, yet we cannot help ourselves from repeating the error again and again. Hey, it’s fun.

I think historical novels and movies are as much a product of the creator’s inability to resist the temptation as that they are a sale-able commodity. The writers love to play with the past—and we, the audience, love to be entertained by the caprice of it. Yet every scene in every historical movie is balderdash, made up by the writer, or director. In its own way, it is anti-history as much as it is historical.

But we mustn’t confuse history with archaeology—yes, the history derived from archaeology will be equally specious, but archaeology itself is very much a fact-based endeavor. Of course, the archaeologist is forced to imagine or extrapolate what all of his or her findings might mean—and thereby become historians against their will—but they do not imagine anything they dig out of the earth, and they don’t have to rely on personal records of past persons, introducing subjectivity into the process. They only add it in, after the digging and the examining is completed.

So, as I contemplate history-based writing, I am aware that it can devolve into egos and attitudes just as easily as a Broadway troupe or a group of old-style communists. It’s okay, though—I’m old enough now that I couldn’t care less what someone else thinks of me, as long as I’m satisfied. And I don’t have that many followers to disappoint—although I have topped one hundred, which is kind of flattering (even after you subtract the spam). But if my recent increase in followers has anything to do with how I lambasted Trump, you’re going to be disappointed from now on.

I was willing to discuss it when there was still a point to it—but that time has passed and I will not pay any attention to that jerk from here on out—I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to know. What’s done is done and I don’t like to waste time—especially on unpleasant subjects. So, onward to something more pleasant….

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